The Surreal Moments of the Underwear Bomber's Trial

For instance: "Hey dude, your pants are on fire"

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It's hard to imagine anything more serious than a trial on charges of international terrorism. The suspect faces life in prison and his would-be victims, who prosecutors say closely escaped a fiery death, offered testimony that sealed his fate. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009, pleaded guilty on Wednesday morning after just one day of testimony as federal prosecutors laid out their case against him. Abdulmutallab, you'll remember, tried to detonate a chemical bomb he had hidden in his underwear as the plane flew over Detroit, but after it flared up it failed to explode. Witnesses for the government on Tuesday described a chaotic scene in which passengers rushed to subdue a man bent on killing them over a major city. But for all its gravity, the short-lived Abdulmutallab trial has grabbed imaginations because of its abundance of surreal, and at times even funny, descriptions of his thwarted attack attempt. One thing about Abdulmutallab's guilty plea: It will save him further embarrassment at trial.

"Dude, your pants are on fire": The quote that led the Detroit Free Press's coverage got wide play on Twitter. Los Angeles news anchor Pam Cook declared it the "quote of the week." Scott Cassel, a Twitter user following the story, encapsulated people's feeling about the line: "I know this is serious, but read it and see if u smile." The quote came from Michael Zantow, a passenger from Wisconsin, who sat behind Abdulmutallab and testified on Tuesday. From the Free Press's testimony blog:

Zantow noticed Abdulmuttalab put a blanket over his head, prompting a flight attendant to ask him if he was okay.

“I saw movement… as he was pulling an airline blanket over his head and shoulders,” said Zantow. After that, maybe 4-5 minutes later, Zantow heard a loud pop that sounded like a firecracker. He couldn’t tell exactly where it came from.

After the pop, “everyone kinda looked around,” Zantow said. About 30 seconds later, a passenger yelled: “Hey dude, your pants are on fire.”

Adult diapers: Reporters seemed to struggle to describe Abdulmutallab's "bulky" underwear in more serious terms. Zantow testified that "they were bulky and they were burning," and reportedly got a laugh from the jury when he compared them to child's pull-up diapers. The comparison made it into The New York Times, where reporter Monica Davey wrote that "his underwear looked peculiar, almost like a child’s pull-up or an adult diaper."

Burned genitals: Shortly before the start of the trial, Abdulmutallab's standby defense lawyer, Anthony Chambers, moved to block a hospital photo showing Abdulmutallab's burned genitals from evidence. U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds denied the request, but prosecutors had not yet presented the photo when Abdulmutallab pleaded guilty. Now that he has conceded his guilt, he'll escape the embarrassment of having the picture shown in court.

Naked and defeated: Abdulmutallab wanted to go out in an explosion that would rock the United States on behalf of Al Qaeda, prosecutors allege. But when his chemical bomb failed to work, his situation turned into the exact opposite of that. Like a bad dream, Abdulmutallab had to sit out the rest of his flight to Detroit pantsless, burned, and restrained. The Free Press's testimony blog from Tuesday has more:

Tukel said the defendant pulled down his pants to push the plunger on the bomb. After a passenger put out the fire, he essentially sat naked from the waist down for the rest of the flight.


A man who sat with Abdulmutallab in the business section said the defendant admitted trying to ignite a bomb, Tukel said. A flight attendant seated across from Abdulmutallab talked with him. She asked him if he was in pain from burns. He nodded his head yes. She asked him what he had in his pocket. He didn’t answer. She asked again. He told her he had an explosive device, Tukel said. 

Had enough: The giggles at his failed attempt seem to have gotten to Abdulmutallab. According to Wednesday's testimony blog, after he acknowledged his guilt, "he warned the U.S. that, if it continued to murder innocent Muslims, a calamity would befall the U.S. 'If you laugh at us now, we will laugh at you later,' he said."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.